Monday, September 22nd, 2014
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Escape from the Ivory Tower


I began my year at Yale as a Ph.D. student in English in the fall of 1980. The boredom that Robert Fitzgerald had predicted for me set in within hours of my arrival, but it was a boredom unlike any I had experienced hitherto—it was an anxious boredom; a constant looking about me and thinking, “You must be joking,” sort of boredom; the boredom of confronting the Byzantine rules of a culture I was hard pressed to believe actually existed. All the rules that mattered were unwritten, as is always the case in elaborate hierarchies. Here are some of them:

1. Most teachers of graduate seminars (unlike, say, the very same teachers in an undergraduate setting) will be tepidly enraged by their students. One going theory among my fellow students for this was that they were “jealous” of us, but I saw no evidence for that. Our professors saw us as a chore—and in fact, we were probably not nearly as malleable, bright, or complimentary as most of their undergraduates.

2. We were reminded by the administration and by our professors that there were “too many” of us (twelve, I think, in my year) and that some of us would “have to go” by the end of the first year, as there were only “jobs out there” for “four” of us. I still remember that chilling math, and I also remember snorting aloud with laughter the first time it was said to my group; it was melodramatic, silly, like the driver’s-ed class where the instructor asks for “volunteers for death.”

3. The men will speak in class 90 percent of the time. (Or was it only 89 percent?) About half of us were women, but effectively only the men spoke. Of course this was the Dark Ages of 1980, before women had learned how to talk, or something. But since I had come from a university and a workplace and friendships where women talked all the time, these graduate classrooms looked like something out of a corny biopic—Marie Curie, head bowed as she washes test tubes for the men scientists in a lab at the Sorbonne, or Virginia Woolf denied entry to the library at Oxford. I tried to speak; I was baffled by sharp correction and by indifference.

4. The author will have no place in our consideration except as a stumbling block. This was the broad rule; then the subsets went into two different directions. The old-fashioned teachers, for whom the tenets of what in the 1930s had been named New Criticism still held sway, engaged the class in discussion of the text, and subtext—but never with reference to the author’s intention or life—in a way that was familiar to me from college but, since we were in graduate school, seemed infinitely less playful. The wave of the new—and this was an assortment of structuralist, poststructuralist, deconstructionist, and various “cultural studies” styles of reading—proclaimed that the author is a fool; he does not know what he did. The author is a fraud; he tries to make us think he is doing X, but actually, and evilly, he is doing Y. The author is racist; moreover he is anti-Semitic, imperialist, capitalist, misogynist (for these purposes, we pretend to be feminists).

5. To learn Anglo-Saxon, you will submit yourself to the tutelage of a sneering martinet who will moreover inflict on you his spring replacement, a visiting professor, a crackpot from South Africa who thinks that the Bantu are one of the lost tribes of Israel, Anglo-Saxon poetry derives from the lost tribes of Israel, and a kenning is not a metaphor.

Need I add that, as time went by, I began to suspect that I would be a volunteer for death? This in spite of charming fellow students, two whiz-bang seminars (one taught by Harold Bloom, another by Paul Fry), and my pride. During the spring term, I began my slide into long days spent in bed reading Dickens—and not for class. I just thought reading Dickens would be a good idea, as it was then and is now. I read every novel except Barnaby Rudge. I think all the copies were out of the library.

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About the Text

April Bernard is a poet and novelist whose fourth poetry collection, Romanticism, will be published in the spring of 2009. She teaches literature and writing at Bennington College in Vermont and is also on the graduate faculty of the Bennington MFA Writing Seminars.

If the heavens were all parchment, and the trees of the forest all pens, and every human being were a scribe, it would still be impossible to record all that I have learned from my teachers.
Jochanan ben Zakkai, c. 75
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